I fondly recall seeing Snowpiercer in the theater. Because I had just become a dad, escapes from the house were few and far between, and the theater was packed and buzzing from the anticipation of seeing the newest and first English-language film from Bong Joon Ho, who had hit some international notoriety many years prior after his monster movie The Host and would go on to become an Oscar-winner for his film Parasite.
I was blown away by what I saw. A train, containing the last remnants of society, circumnavigated the globe after scientists turned the Earth into a snowball in a misguided attempt to reverse global warming. (The movie itself is an adaptation of a French graphic novel.) The rich lived in luxury at the front of the train while the poor toiled away in slums near the back, creating a clear metaphor for classism that would be a staple of many of Bong's movies. The film felt complete; Bong's vision was total and there was no need to add anything to it.
So when TNT announced that it was making a Snowpiercer TV series, my first thought was to put flowers on the grave of good decisions. All adaptations are tricky, especially when they're of a beloved property, but Snowpiercer? TNT wanted to turn that into a TV series? Yes, and apparently it wanted to adapt it so badly that it was willing to put up with a lot.
The TV version was stuck in development hell for years, with the first script, written in 2016 by The Sarah Connor Chronicles' Josh Friedman, tossed over "creative differences" with TNT in favor of a new version from Orphan Black creator Graeme Manson. The show's original director, Scott Derrickson (Doctor Strange), left with Friedman, praising Friedman's script as the best he's ever read and saying Manson's script was nothing like the original vision he signed up for. The 10-episode finished product, which premieres Sunday, May 17, feels like the result of all that messiness and has lost track of what made the film so special, namely Bong's creative energy.
Much of the basic premise remains; the train is there, the world is still freezer-burned, the rich live off of the backs of the poor. But in order to make Snowpiercer viable as a television series, it's been TV-ified in some pretty grotesque ways. Daveed Diggs stars as Andre Layton, who's one of the refugees who forced their way onto Snowpiercer before it departed and left everyone to die. Like Chris Evans' Curtis from the movie, he's a leader of the rear section of the train planning a revolution to bring equality to the passengers of Snowpiercer. Unlike Curtis, he happens to be the last surviving homicide detective on Earth (oof), and his services are called on by Melanie Cavill (Jennifer Connelly), head of hospitality for Snowpiercer and the mouthpiece of the train's creator, the mysterious Mr. Wilford.
So instead of a thrilling, constant progression of the lower class up the train towards the engine and social equality, Snowpiercer the TV show is a murder mystery — and not an intriguing one by any means — for a large part of its first season, with revolution on the back burner until Layton can figure out who's trying out for an arc on Criminal Minds by hacking people to pieces. It was clearly the first and most obvious idea that went up on the whiteboard when trying to figure out how to turn the movie into an ongoing TV series, and it's going to be jarring for fans of the movie as it neuters much of what makes the movie so special (and concise).
Layton's investigation puts him face-to-face with other passengers, including the cartoonishly hoity-toity wealthy families of first class and their bodyguards, the "freaks" of the mid-train Nightcar and the dingy 'hood The Chains, members of the hospitality crew who run the train, some doctors and scientists, a few cops (known as Brakemen), as well as some key figures from his life before Snowpiercer departed. (The TV series is set just over six years after departure, whereas the film is set 17 years after departure.) There are at least half a dozen too many characters than the story can support, with many of them clearly only there to provide a future plot pivot as allegiances are broken and re-formed when the story requires them to be, which happens a lot. It's the kind of interconnected web of characters that's complicated without being complex, and I swear some of these characters' sole purposes are to do something like open a door that isn't supposed to be opened in later episodes.
TNT's press site for Snowpiercer shows bios for 15 different characters, and there are at least 10 more that you're supposed to care about and keep track of. With things so crowded, half-assed backstories are thrown into the mix, like a love triangle that doesn't serve a purpose except to flavor characters who shouldn't be there in the first place, or drug issues to bump a character from supporting to main.
I think we can all agree that the premise of Snowpiercer in any form is absolutely ridiculous and of questionable science. But what propped it up in the film was Bong's flair. The violence was fun and the performances lovingly over-the-top; there was no need to wonder how the rich were eating three luxurious meals a day on a train that couldn't resupply because we were too busy looking at Tilda Swinton's teeth or taking in Alison Pill's absurd intensity. But TNT's Snowpiercer treats the story with full seriousness, just as it does in any of its other shows, like The Last Ship or Falling Skies, keeping the audience in a reality where they constantly question the viability of what's happening on-screen.
Ultimately, that's what does Snowpiercer in. It's a clearly inferior version of something that was already great and never needed to be revisited again. But even without taking the film's existence into consideration, it lacks a certain edge that's needed to stand out. It's not a total train wreck — in fact, the final two or three episodes of the season seem to get the show back on track toward something we all would have expected from a TV version of Snowpiercer, and the set-up for the already ordered Season 2 is truly bonkers in a good way. But with the train's ecosystem merely simplified reflections of our own, there's little reason to get on board.
TV Guide Rating: 2/5
Snowpiercer premieres Sunday, May 17 at 9/8c on TNT